In Roman and medieval times, ships tended to dock at small quays in the present-day city of London or Southwark an area known as the Pool of London. However, this gave no protection against the elements, was vulnerable to thieves and suffered from a lack of space at the quayside. The Howland Great Dock in Rotherhithe in (built 1696 and later forming the core of the Surrey Commercial Docks) was designed to address these problems, providing a large, secure and sheltered anchorage with room for 120 large vessels. It was a major commercial success and provided for two phases of expansion during the Georgian and Victorian eras. The first of the Georgian docks was the West India (opened 1802), followed by the London (1805), the East India (also 1805), the Surrey (1807), the Regent’s Canal Dock (1820), St Katharine (1828) and the West India South (1829). The Victorian docks were mostly further east, comprising the Royal Victoria (1855), Millwall (1868) and Royal Albert (1880). The King George V Dock was a late addition in 1921. (London Docklands)
The London Docks, located at Wapping, were the second dock system to be built in London. A large range of items were traded at the London Docks, including: tobacco, marble, bark, rubber, whalebones, iodine, mercury, wool, wax, paper, hemp, coir yarn, rattans, jute, skins, coconuts, sausage skins, rice, fruit, olive oil, fish oil, nuts, sugar, coffee, cocoa, spices, chutney, brandy, wine, rum, and sherry.
Early on, the London Docks dealt with the tobacco and wool trade. The ‘Tobacco Warehouse’ covered five acres of land and was rented by the government for around £15,600 per year. Making £2.6 million per annum, the ‘Great Wool-Floor’ at the London Dock was famous for its weekly public sales of wool, with some 25,000 bales sold every week. It employed 200 men. The London Dock was granted a monopoly for 21 years that declared that vessels entering the Port of London with cargoes of tobacco, rice, wine and brandy (except vessels from the East and West Indies) were required to unload at London Docks. The vaults at the London Docks held liquor, tobacco and other precious goods in bond. Police guarded the merchandise, which was often opened for inspection. Customs and Excise and merchants held ‘tasting permits.’
Initially, sailing vessels were brought into the London Docks. Fortunately, as the ships changed from sails to steam the docks required little rebuilding to accommodate the ships of the 19th century. However, as vessels increased in size into the 20th century, the docks struggled to cope. As container ships became more popular, the London Docks became unable to cope with their size.
Port Cities London provides us these facts regarding the London Docks:
- The site covered 20 acres of land. A further 12 acres was developed to create a second dock.
- The head engineer for the project was John Rennie.
- The cost of the project was £4 million.
- Rubble and soil was shipped up the river in barges and laid as the foundations for Pimlico.
- The dock system consisted of two main basins, the Western Dock and the Eastern Dock, with a small basin known as the Tobacco Dock linking the two.
- The docks were accessed from the river by three small basins, the Wapping Basin (12.19 metres in width) and the Hermitage Basin (12.19 metres in width) linking the Western Dock and the Shadwell Basin (13.72 metres in width) linking the Eastern Dock.
- There were 6 quays in the docks, able to berth 302 sailing vessels.
- There was 50 acres of warehouse space, containing 20 warehouses, 18 sheds and 17 vaults. The vaults covered around 20 acres of cellarage, built with ventilated vaulting.
- A small permanent workforce was formed within 3 months of opening, including a Superintendent of the Dock and a Dockmaster. However, this was supplemented by a large casual workforce, which could number as many as 3000 labourers.